Council, citizens support Langley mayor despite jail sentence
By JIM LARSEN
South Whidbey Record Editor
December 19, 2012 · Updated 10:37 AM
Langley Mayor Larry Kwarsick, a day after admitting to a crime and being sentenced to 15 days in jail, has the full support of the City Council as well as most of a roomful of people who turned out for a meeting Tuesday night.
Mayor pro-tem Hal Seligson called the meeting to gauge the feelings of the council and public about Kwarsick's situation. He said Kwarsick was out of town, but he left no doubt who is still in charge.
"Larry Kwarsick, until such time as he should step down, is the mayor," he said.
It mostly appeared to be a meeting of the Larry Kwarsick Fan Club, as those urging him to remain as mayor drew applause and those who took verbal shots at the judge who sentenced him to jail were supported by clapping and scattered cheers.
Councilman Bruce Allen suggested Kwarsick wants to remain as mayor. "His last words to me (before leaving town) were that this is not over yet and he's going to fight it."
Added Councilwoman Rene Neff, "He hopes he can remain mayor."
Kwarsick admitted to a single gross misdemeanor charge of "falsifying a city record," and stood before Island Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill for sentencing Monday. Churchill went beyond a plea agreement worked out by Kwarsick's attorney Charles Arndt and Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks. The agreement called for a suspended 364 days in jail, meaning no jail time, and a $2,500 fine. In admitting guilt, Banks said earlier this week, the "malfeasance" meant Kwarsick would no longer be allowed to hold public office.
Instead of adhering to the plea agreement, Judge Churchill sternly lectured Kwarsick on the importance of public trust in public servants and sentenced him to 15 days in jail, beginning in February. "What you did was betray that public confidence," Churchill said in part. "I'm sorry, I don't think anyone who does that should remain in office."
The theory that Kwarsick would immediately have to step down as mayor was shot down Tuesday night by Langley City Attorney Mike Kenyon. He said the law is fairly clear that a public official who commits a felony must leave his job, but not so with lesser crimes, such as gross misdemeanors. "There's no statute that mentions a misdemeanor shall forfeit office," Kenyon said.
He noted Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn admitted to driving while intoxicated. He not only kept his job but was reelected last fall.
"Should the mayor stay?" the attorney rhetorically asked the crowd of some 40 people stuffed into the tiny council chambers, with others listening from outside an open door. "It's not my job to say that either way … but there's no challenge in court right now to have him removed from office." The council could ask Kwarsick to leave, he added, but they couldn't require it. Only legal action could force him out. Later, though, all five council members told the Record they support keeping Kwarsick as mayor.
Prosecutor Greg Banks, contacted Wednesday morning, said he was "kind of surprised" that Kwarsick may stay in office and has the full council's support, but he agreed with the city attorney that the only way to remove him is through the court system.
An audience member asked about a recall election, but Kenyon said that applies to "malfeasance while in office." Kwarsick's offense, he said, "occurred before Larry was mayor."
As the city planner, Kwarsick doctored a relative's building permit to ease environmental oversight of a home built near a wetland, then backdated it and replaced it in city files.
While admitting the issue isn't entirely clear, the attorney said Kwarsick may remain as mayor until "a court says no."
Kwarsick's crime was uncovered by a blogger, Skip Demuth, with help from local environmentalist Marianne Edain. City planner Jeff Aragno filed a whisteblower complaint to notify the council of the deed, and after mulling over the situation the council asked the Prosecutor's Office to decide if a crime had been committed. None of the three attended the meeting.
Resident John Norby cited a past mayor who was arrested for drunk driving and kept his job and said, "Larry's the only Republican I've ever voted for."
Councilwoman Neff read a long statement defending Kwarsick. Although he changed a document, "very little harm was done by Larry," she said. "It was not a permit; the house was already built. It simply "collapsed" the wetland mitigation process "to one year, not seven."
"I have no idea what was going through Larry's mind when he chose to alter this document. I do believe he was doing what he stated, 'just getting it finished up."
Neff cited a long list of Kwarsick's accomplishments that outweigh his crime. "In the end I do not believe his actions gave anyone a huge benefit, no one was injured, the environment was not hurt, and no money changed hands. Therefore, I am willing to forgive Larry Kwarsick and move on."
Seligson took issue with part of Neff's statement. "Mitigation's not a problem, he backdated it," he said of the document.
Kwarsick supporter Carol Kerly said the situation was "blown completely out of proportion," and commended Kwarsick. "His passion and what he wants to see happen to this little town is contagious," she said, prompting applause.
Several speakers noted the progress Kwarsick has made after one year in office, including upcoming Second Street improvements and work on the marina expansion and associated projects, while others said he deserves forgiveness. "It's not like we're all clean here," said Councilman Allen, striking an almost religious tone. "It's just that Larry's (mistake) was a public one."
Allen tore into Judge Churchill, saying he and other council members who attended Monday's sentencing spent two hours watching the judge deal with a variety of convicted criminals, from domestic abusers to drug violators. "She was very compassionate, and then it was Larry's turn and her demeanor changed completely," he said. "You could see there was a bias in there. Is there anything we can do?"
A woman in the crowd added, "The judge, I think, was horrid."
Allen retorted, "I don't think it was a fair trial."
City Attorney Kenyon tried to stem that line of criticism. "Judges run for office, too," he said. "And if there was any bias Larry's attorney would have raised it."
Seligson in his mild mannered way suggested that Kwarsick shouldn't take too long to decide if he's coming back. "It's his office, he has a responsibility to carry out his duties; we've got a snow storm threat," he said.
"We are ready for the snow!" chimed in Director of Public Works Director Challis Stringer, eliciting laughter and applause.
Longtime city resident Jim Riley told Neff agreed with her letter in support of Kwarsick, but asked for a show of hands by those in the room to discern exactly how much support there was. The crowd murmured against such a show of hands and no council member pursued the idea.
"Trust is the key to holding society together," Riley said when asked Monday morning about his views. He said Kwarsick has shown "repentance," and has a long history of serving the public, so should stay on as mayor.
Hardly anyone seemed to disagree with that assessment. Kwarsick did not return an email asking for comment. The city hall receptionist said he would be gone "only a couple of days."
Meanwhile, Councilman Seligson said updating Langley's code of ethics will be a priority in 2013.
Contact South Whidbey Record Editor Jim Larsen at email@example.com or 1-360-221-5300.